Pronunciation: Let’s Get Physical


For anyone not aware, Adrian Underhill has joined the blogosphere and will be blogging on his pronunciation chart and its uses.

While I’m not a fan of pron charts as I think they are simply another alphabet for students to learn when what they really need is the practice making and recognizing the sounds, I am a big fan of his notion of making pronunciation physical.  There are some nice videos on youtube of him giving a workshop on this here (1, 2, 3, 4).

One of Adrian’s biggest complaints is that pronunciation is the Cinderella of ELT as in nobody pays it much attention.  He is not alone in this (check out Henrick Oprea’s post on the same issue here).

In my work in Turkey I have not found much need to focus on the pronunciation of individual sounds as Turks have very little trouble in this area.  For Turkish pronunciation issues see here, here and here (hit cntrl+f to scroll down immediately to pronunciation).

Two areas where Turks do have a bit of a problem is with “th” sounds and “v” vs. “w.”  One of the first things I noticed with this issue, and where I really agree with Adrian, is that the physical nature of these sounds needs to be modeled and practiced.  Things like tongue placement, vibration, and air flow all become really important.

To make the “th” sound in English we put our tongue between our teeth.  My Turkish students absolutely hate this.  They find it very unnatural and sticking your tongue out is seen as a tad rude.  To really get my students doing this, I quickly realized I had to vastly over exaggerate the tongue placement.  I would stand in front of the class and stick my tongue half way out of my mouth and appear really silly overall.  I would then get my students to follow suit.  Regular practice in this way along with consistent reinforcement through correction in the class and students pick it up really quick.

Aside from that, my pronunciation work in Turkey tends to focus on linking words and weak forms as Turks have a habit of speaking in a staccato by separating every word out in a sentence.

Where I really learned the need to focus on pronunciation of individual sounds was when I moved to Vietnam.  Vietnamese pronunciation is some of the worst I’ve ever come across.  There are two main reasons for this:  1)  Vietnamese speakers don’t use their tongues when they speak.  They generally rest on the bottom of their mouths.  2)  There are no final consonants in Vietnamese so their brains actually never developed the ability to hear a consonant at the end of a word.  Since they can’t hear it, they can’t say it.  Since they can’t say it, they can’t hear it.  It’s a pronunciation teacher’s worst nightmare.

I quickly started introducing whole lessons on pronunciation.  This involved modeling a lot and getting students to stare at my mouth, which was strange for me.  I had to do a lot of the reverse as well – staring at students’ mouths and making sure mouth and tongue placement were correct.  I also learned to draw a lot of pictures detailing mouth position, illustrate sounds with air vs. no air (a piece of paper held in front of your mouth is good for this), and vibration vs. no vibration.

As Adrian points out, rather than just having students listen and copy the sounds you are making, really get them involved with the physical nature of the sounds.  I actually found that pronunciation lessons always ended in lots of laughter as people try really hard to make foreign sounds.

What kind of pronunciation work do you do in your classes?  Do you focus on the physical nature of pronunciation in any way?  Do you have any good activities for doing so?

Useful pronunciation activities:

Reverse dictation.  Students read out sentences and the teacher writes what they hear on the board.  This is often very enlightening to students as they don’t realize what they sound like.

Recording students saying a sentence in class and then comparing it to the recording of other English speakers.

Holding paper in front of your mouth to practice consonants with/without air (very useful for beginning “t” vs. final “t”, “v” vs. “f”, or “b” vs. “p”)

Tongue twisters are always fun.

The line game for minimal pairs – students stand in a line and the teacher says a word involving one of a set of minimal pairs.  For example “w” and “v”  If the students hear a “w” word they have to jump to the left, if they hear a “v” word they have to jump to the right.  Eventually, switch the teacher out for a student.

Minimal Pair Maze -  Draw a tree like below and label it with cities.  Then choose a minimal pair and writes words using the two to the left and right of the maze.  The teacher calls out a word and students follow along on their maze according to the direction on the maze (in this case, left for “t” and right for “th”)  In the end, students compare what city they ended up in.  Then get the students to do it.  (A side note:  I always choose cities that Turkish speakers are likely to goof up so they get some city vocab practice in as well).


Related Articles:

Orthographic Interference for Turkish L1 Speakers

Whose English Should We Teach (in Turkey)?

Adrian Underhill’s Pron Chart Blog

Recycling Pronuncation by Henrick Oprea

Teaching English Pronunciation to Vietnamese Learners via ELT World

Some Random Pron Worksheets

Tefltastic’s Top 15 Fun Pron Games


  • By Henrick Oprea, October 30, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

    Hi Nick,

    I loved the picture you used to illustrate how to pronounce the TH sound. This seems to be a major difficulty for Brazilian learners too. It’s somewhat of a challenge for learners to get their tongue round certain words simply because they have never learned how to produce – or even listen – to certain sounds. The problem you described with Vietnamese learners is also true of Brazilian learners for certain sounds. It’s quite common for Brazilian learners to say TURD instead of THIRD, or UDDER instead of OTHER. Another big challenge is the correct pronunciation of the vowel sounds – BITCH instead of BEACH, SEEKS instead of SIX, and so on and so forth.

    I really think the main advantage of working with Underhill’s phonemic chart is regarding the physicality (can I say it like that?) of pronunciation. As you pointed out in your post, once learners are taught how to pronounce certain sounds, it seems it’s a lot easier for them to listen to the sound and speak it – and I believe it happens in this order, first listening and then speaking. If learners are not shown that they need to position their tongue in a certain way, and don’t consciously think about what they’re doing, they’re likely not to remember that specific sound. I also do it like you, asking students to look at my mouth and try to repeat the movement, and then look at each other’s mouth. Adding a mirror to the activity is also helpful, as they are able to self correct. Once their brain finally understands that there is a difference between “I think” and “I sink”, it apparently creates a new slot for the sound, and is now able to listen to it.

    I particularly like the places that Underhill has chosen to place the sounds there, and that’s the best feature of it. Just like you, I don’t think learners should be forced to learn those ‘greek symbols’, as they usually call them. However, if there’s consistency with the work of pronunciation, they end up learning the IPA. Another advantage to that is adding a visual support to what is mainly dealt with as being oral input. A great asset for visual learners in the classroom, and also to kinesthetic ones, a they’ll be trying to position their speech apparatus in the correct way. But I’m definitely against the teaching of the phonemic alphabet as an end on its own, just like you.

    Now, why is it that so many teachers fail to teach pronunciation consistently? Is it because the coursebooks they use don’t cover it properly? Lack of confidence? Time constraints? Whatever the reason is, I think this should seriously be reconsidered. Pronunciation fosters sense of progress, it’s fun to work with, and learners are likely to be more motivated to learn the sounds of the language than the grammar of it. However, it’ll be useless if teachers simply teach a certain pronunciation topic, i.e. regular verbs in the past, and consider it done and dealt with. Just as we correct vocabulary and grammar mistakes, we should also correct pronunciation mistakes.

    I wasn’t aware of the fact that Underhill had started blogging, so thank you for telling me that. And thank you for linking it to my post. I’m really flattered!


  • By turklis1, October 30, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

    Thanks for the well thought-out comment Henrick :) Sounds like Brazilian learners have a number of similarities with Turkish learners in the pronunciation department. Turkish only has 9 vowel sounds compared to English’s 23. They have a lot of difficulty with the difference between short and long vowels at first too. There are some examples of this in Turkish from Arabic and Persian loan words, but few people really realize it. Generally in Turkish a longer vowel simply emphasizes the word rather than changes it’s meaning, so it’s important to look at with beginners.

    I’d really be interested on research on the topic of learning to hear new sounds. The article I linked to on Vietnamese learners claims that loads of listening is needed first, but I agree with Underhill that the physicality is more important. I don’t care how many times you hear a sound, if you don’t position the mouth right there is no way you’ll be able to produce it. Especially if you cant’ distinguish between the sounds. I have no evidence to back this up, but I feel that pronouncing a sound and hearing it are very connected. I’m not convinced that one comes before the other. Rather I think that both work to support the other. Just a guess, but I’d think that if the a speaker tries to make a sound, the brain will probably develop an ability to hear or distinguish it.

    I know English speakers have an almost impossible time distinguishing two sounds in Mongolian and a couple Inuit languages. I’d be curious to know if anyone reading this blog has learned either language and if they ever become able to distinguish the sounds.

    The mirror is really useful and Adrian mentions that as well I believe. Unfortunately, that never occurred to me before. Sort of a “duh” moment there :) .

    Why don’t teachers cover pronunciation more? Well, in Turkey I’d say it’s because many teachers make major pronunciation errors. Some know it and are scared to teach spoken English because of it. Other don’t know it’s wrong. We’ve got generations of students saying heig instead of high and sooeet instead of suit. It also seems to be glossed over in training courses. I remember I was at a complete loss for it until I moved to Vietnam and really realized the need for an intense focus. I don’t think ELF helps much either. I’ve talked to a lot of people at conferences that say if the speaker is intelligible why bother? But the problem becomes that, since 90% of listening done in class is with other students, if the students don’t say it correctly, they never learn to hear it when others say it. This is why I push contractions, the schwa, and linking words so much in my classes. If you say it one way, you expect to hear it that way. Hmm, it might even be worth doing a short post on that.

    As for the link, any time :)

  • By Andrea, November 9, 2010 @ 3:25 am

    Thank you for such an informative post. We will be teaching in Vietnam soon, so this is a very useful post for me.

Other Links to this Post

  1. Why teach pronunciation? « Doing some thinking — November 7, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

  2. Why English Pronunciation Is So Tricky | Voxy Blog — June 19, 2011 @ 1:19 am

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